The Pope on the Economy: “Immoral because incompetant”?

I was listening to an MP3 recording of an evangelical speaker giving a rather forceful bagging to Bishop Tom Wright and his theology just this morning (including the politico-economic aspects of it), when I heard the speaker refer to very negative judgement of a certain “Peter Bauer” on the social encyclicals of Paul VI. Opening Cathnews today, I see that Papa Benny is warming the world up to receive his third encyclical:

Pope Benedict says his new encyclical on the economy and labour issues, due to be published at the end of this month, will focus on ways to make globalisation more responsive to the needs of the poor amid the worldwide financial crisis… The pope has been working on “Caritas in veritate” (Charity in Truth) since 2007 but recently said he had held back on issuing it so that he could update it to reflect the global economic crisis.

So I was inspired to put “Peter Bauer” and “Paul VI” and “economics” into Google and see what I found. As far as I can tell here is Bauer’s full quotation from “Ecclesiastical Economics: Envy Legitimized” (1984, pp88-89):

Paul VI chose to speak on subjects with which he was unfamiliar. “People who pronounce on matters about which they are ignorant are apt simply to absorb ideas propagated or taken up by other Älite or establishment groups…. The spirit of these documents is contrary to the most durable and best elements in Catholic tradition. They are indeed even un-Christian. Their Utopian, chiliastic ideology, combined with an overriding preoccupation with economic differences, is an amalgam of the ideas of millenarian sects, of the extravagant claims of the early American advocates of foreign aid, and of the Messianic component of Marxism-Leninism…. Populorum Progressio and Octogesima Adveniens are documents which are immoral … because they are incompetent (and because) they give color to the notion that envy can be legitimate; and they spread confusion about the meaning of charity.”

Well. There are at least three charges there:

1) That when ecclesiastics proclaim on economical and social issues they are speaking about subjects of which they are ignorant.
2) That when ecclesiastics proclaim on economical and social issues they are speaking out of an “Utopian, chiliastic ideology” which is akin to Marxism.
3) That when ecclesiastics proclaim on economical and social issues they are doing so out of “envy” (ie. out of a real but hidden desire to have for themselves the wealth of those whom they criticise).

Those are indeed heavy charges. And perhaps it goes some way for us to understand them if we realise that Peter Bauer was “Lord” Peter Bauer, made a peer of the realm by his “friend and admirer” (as the Wikipedia page puts it) Margaret Thatcher. So perhaps his attacks upon Paul VI were not completely disinterested either. One can at least say that while Bauer may have been more expert in matters of the economy than Paul VI, it was Paul VI who famously said that the the Church was “expert in humanity”.



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12 responses to “The Pope on the Economy: “Immoral because incompetant”?

  1. Peregrinus

    There is a certain irony in Bauer – Jewish by religion, and an economist by profession – penning an essay in which he:

    – criticises Pope Paul VI for choosing “to speak on subjects with which he was unfamiliar”, and

    – declares that certain of his teachings were “contrary to the most durable and best elements in Catholic tradition” and “even un-Christian”.

    Now, the church holds herself out to the world, and non-Christian economists have as much right as anyone else to engage critically with what any pope says, and to criticise it. For all I know, Bauer made a close study of Christian theology on this matter before forming the opinion that he did. But, even so, Bauer would be at his most authoritative, it seems to me, when criticising economic teachings on the basis of his mastery of economics. When he criticises them on theological grounds, I think the case for attaching any particular weight to his criticism remains to be made.

    And I am curious as to why your anti-Wright evangelical speaker apparently feels that, on theological questions such as this, we should prefer the opinion of an LSE professor of economics over that of a Bishop of Rome.

    • That curiousity is about something most curious indeed. There is in fact a whole avalanche of “über-Reformed” opposition to Tom Wright out there (just google it). It is based primarily on what they see as Wright’s abandonment of the traditional protestant schema of justification – ie. Wright rejects the idea that Paul’s teaching on justification is how individual sinners “get saved”; it is rather about the way God vindicates those who have received Paul’s announcement of a new Lord and King (the Risen Christ in place of Ceasar) in faith. This is where Wright’s claim that politics is at the heart of the Christian Gospel comes into view, and that is what they are reacting against. They are happy to see that their Christian faith has “political implications”, but not that the proclamation of the Kingdom of God is “at heart” political.

      • Peregrinus

        Fair enough, but it does at first glance look a bit knee-jerk. “I disagree with Wright; therefore I disagree with anyone whom Wright cites in support of his views; therefore anyone who criticises anyone whom Wright cites in support of his views must be correct.” A disagreement with Wright is perfectly legitimate, but the rest of the reasoning process looks decidedly shaky.

        Perhaps I’m reading too much into this. I haven’t listened to the podcast, and I don’t know exactly what conclusion the speaker drew from the fact that the social teachings of Paul VI were criticised by Bauer.

        It strikes me as odd though, that anyone should pick Bauer as an exemplar of the criticism of these teachings. He stands for a school of neo-liberal economic thought which, right now, for reasons that much of the world is painfully familiar with, is held in pretty low esteem. What this suggests to me is that the speaker couldn’t find anyone criticising Paul VI from any standpoint with a bit more street cred, or that this speaker has, and is addressing an audience which he expects to share, the same neoliberal assumptions and values as Bauer – i.e. he still thinks they are credible and authoritative..

        Which would be ironic. Because, if this is so, what you have is a speaker who critiques Wright for politicising the Gospel, but doing so from a standpoint which is firmly wedded to a very specific political position.

  2. PM

    When you hear this type of critique of the church getting involved in politics or economics, it usually boils down to displeasure that the politics and economics are not those of the hard right.

    There are, by the way, quite a few Catholics who trumpet their loyalty to the magisterium but regard its social teaching as sentimental socialist rubbish. Usually they don’t say so in as many words. One exception is Professor Luckey (yes, that is his name) of the economics department of the proudly ‘orthodox’ Christendom College. Lucky preaches the wohip of the free market a la Hayek. And he is at least honest enough to denounce the tradition as far back as Leo XII and Rerum Novarum (not to mention that well-known apostle of socialist envy Aristotle) rather than just pin the alleged error on Paul VI. He shares much of William F Buckley’s denunciation of John Paul II as a dangerous leftist, but then tries, rather comically, to assure us, on the basis of a few sentences of Centesimus Annus, that Wojtyla’s dim wits were enlightened because he once spent an hour with Professor Hayek. See, for example,, and a good critique in

    None of this, however, seems to count as ‘dissent’. I look forward to the new encylical from Pope Benedict (already being put down in certain US theocon quarters as just another German social democrat!)

  3. Paul

    I am fascinated to hear about the next encyclical (Caritas in Veritate). I am sure Pope Benedict will have a lot more to say than repeating “absorbed” ideas from the nearest Marxist.
    Personally, I think there is a big and very nearby challenge for parishes. With the shortage of priests and the amalgamation of parish groupings, the Church has a lot of resources and real estate at its disposal. In my local area, a parish house is being used by a family of refugees (as it happens, all children, because their mother died recently).

    But apart from refugees, there is a great work to be done for the elderly. With the aging of society, there are many, many elderly people living alone or in depressing hostels who could be helped with a few minutes of companionship and regular sacraments. This would also be a very effective way of evangelising by example.

    Anyway, I await with interest to hear what the boss has to say about this.

    • Me too, Paul. I want to see Pope Benedict make social justice a truly credible vocation for the serious Christian. I was just listening to Tom Wright again this morning, and while I totally agree with him on the need for social action and justice by Christians here and now, I think he picks woeful examples of where we should be aiming our energy.

      For instance, he makes the point that we pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”, not “in heaven as it is in heaven”. He also points out that we would be critical of any Christian who said: “I want to be holy, I know I will be holy in heaven, so I will wait for God to do it then and not worry about trying to be holy now”. Same goes for justice: “I know God will bring justice to the world on the last day, so I will wait for it to happen then and not do anything about it now”. He and we would rightly condemn such notions. But then he turns around and says: “So we ought to do something about the ozone layer and global warming”. Que? What about starting with human trafficking and abortion? What about starting with defending true rights (such as freedom of religion and the rights of marriage and the family) against make-believe “rights” (eg. rights to “reproductive health” or rights to “same-sex marriage”)? I just think he goes for the fashionable social justice causes without seeing where the real evil strikes.

      • Peregrinus

        But then he turns around and says: “So we ought to do something about the ozone layer and global warming”. Que? What about starting with human trafficking and abortion?

        Fair point, but I have a couple of responses to it.

        First, I think Wright is pointing to the specific reference to “earth” in the Lord’s Prayer, and its contrast with “heaven”.

        Remember that heaven, for Jesus, is not the afterlife. The kingdom of heaven is nearness to God, and it can be experienced in this life. “The kingdom of heaven is near.” In the sermon on the mount, the kingdom of heaven is not promised to the poor in spirit, the persecuted, etc in the future tense, but in the present tense. The kingdom is something we are called to build here, now, in this present life.

        So “on earth as in heaven” is not opposing the present life and the afterlife. If the word “earth” in the Lord’s Prayer is not a metaphor for the present life, we should at least be open to the possibility that it is not a metaphor at all and that it is, or at least embraces, a reference to the earth.

        Secondly, I don’t think Wright is saying that this is call exclusively, or primarily to treat (non-human) creation with respect. I think he is saying that it includes a call to treat (non-human) creation with respect. Humanity is of the earth, but it is not the whole earth, and this is something often overlooked in the Christian tradition. What about human trafficking and abortion? Well, Christians already recognise a call to action on these topics, and in fact do much to address them. But what I read Wright as saying is that the Lord’s Prayer does not pray for God’s will to be done as betweeen people, but on earth, which is a rather wider call.

        Thirdly, of course, phenomena such as ozone depletion and global warming have implications for the health, welfare and even lives of millions of our brothers and sisters which absolutely dwarf the implications of, e.g. same-sex marriage. Even if we do take a human-centred view of what doing God’s will on earth requires, it certainly requires attention to be paid to environmental issues.

  4. “So we ought to do something about the ozone layer and global warming”.

    Yeah, all the stuff that’s probably naturally occurring and probably cannot be dealt with by human beings.

    What about starting with human trafficking and abortion? What about starting with defending true rights (such as freedom of religion and the rights of marriage and the family) against make-believe “rights” (eg. rights to “reproductive health” or rights to “same-sex marriage”)?

    Amen. And feeding the hungry etc.

  5. Peregrinus

    One other point:

    “Immoral . . . because incompetent”?

    OK, there’s an elision in the quote indicating that words are omitted between “immoral” and “incompetent”. But, assuming that the selection of the quote is a fair representation of Bauer’s views, what does this suggest about Bauer’s concept of morality – a concept shared, we must presume, by the evangelical speaker who quotes him with approval?

    The implication is that, if you can’t do a thing well, in the sense of achieving the outcome you aim for, then it is immoral to do it at all. This is of course a consequentialist view; that the morality of an act depends on the consequence it has.

    There are, of course, circumstances where this is basically true. If you can’t perform surgery competently, then you should leave surgery to those who can. Ad of course Bauer’s field is in development economics; p;ursue the wrong policies there and you can certainly injure already vulnerable people.

    But, by “incompetent”, Bauer essentially means “not sharing my faith in the efficacy of markets”. Not even the most extreme Catholic will assert that not being Catholic, not sharing Catholic faith, is immoral. But Bauer appears to be asserting precisely this with respect to neoliberal economic principles.

    • Good question about the “…”. I wonder what was there…in the original?

      Re consequentialism: I was having a discussion about this just today after my presentation on Tom Wright. The comment I overheard was “how could anyone have come up with a philosophical system as vacuuous as consequentialism?”

      Wright himself choses to be numbered among the critical realists. I must say that I find myself very at home in that environment.

      • Peregrinus

        I don’t know about vacuous, but consequentialism does seem to have a powerful appeal, often even to people who formally explicitly reject it.

        I can’t count the number of people I have met who condemn abortion on the basis that an attack directed at innocent human life is inherently wrong, and yet will defend, say, a nuclear military strategy on wholly consequentialist grounds.

  6. That ellipsis between “immoral” and “incompetent” is indeed interesting. I wonder whether Lord Bauer was, in fact, using “incompetent” in the strict sense of the word. Mr. Schütz and Peregrinus, you both seem to have interpreted it in the sense we usually use it today, i.e. as a synonym for “inadequate”, or, as Peregrinus put it, when “you can’t do a thing well, in the sense of achieving the outcome you aim for”. But the proper meaning of “incompetent” is something like “lacking the relevant authority”. I suspect that His Lordship might be arguing that the things on which Paul VI pronounced were things on which he had no authority to be pronouncing, that it was a misuse of the Apostolic authority of pronouncing on moral matters. And in fact there are at least a couple of points in Populorum Progressio where this seems to be the case:

    51. A further step must be taken. When We were at Bombay for the Eucharistic Congress, We asked world leaders to set aside part of their military expenditures for a world fund to relieve the needs of impoverished peoples. (55) What is true for the immediate war against poverty is also true for the work of national development. Only a concerted effort on the part of all nations, embodied in and carried out by this world fund, will stop these senseless rivalries and promote fruitful, friendly dialogue between nations.

    61. … Here again international agreements on a broad scale can help a great deal. They could establish general norms for regulating prices, promoting production facilities, and favoring certain infant industries. …

    These involve prudential judgments which a Pope is free to recommend, but with which his subjects are free to disagree and which he ought to advance through a channel other than a high-level teaching document.

    Before commenting on this post I though that I’d better read Populorum Progressio first, and I did, and I have to say that it left me rather underwhelmed. Though I have not read the other document, namely Octogesima Adveniens, which Lord Bauer cites, his charge of ‘Marxism’ seems preposterous, his charge of ‘Chiliastism/Millenarianism’ laughable, and his accusation of ‘legitimising envy’ offensive and baseless (but predictable—do Lord Bauer and his fellow-travellers care about, or even understand, distributive justice?) but there is, I think, a Utopian flavour, which is unsurprising given Paul VI’s Maritainism.

    So as I said, P.P. left me underwhelmed; what, precisely, is the point of it? I am no free-market ideologue, but it struck me as vague, weak, and riddled with buzzwords (‘dynamism’, ‘dialogue’, ‘humanism’) and statements of the obvious. Not to mention the aforementioned prudential content. Suppose you were editing a new edition of Denzinger: which parts would you extract from P.P. for inclusion among the important sources of Catholic doctrine? I’m not sure I’d include any, though there is a strong, concise denunciation of economic liberalism in section 26. (a pity that there was no similar denunciation of political liberalism, though). Overall, the document left me cold, and if Octogesima Adveniens is anything like it then I doubt I’ll read it.

    “I want to see Pope Benedict make social justice a truly credible vocation for the serious Christian.”

    So do I. And that requires that Catholics remember that the fundamental principle of social justice is not human dignity, not solidarity, not subsidiarity, not the common good: it is the Social Kingship of Christ. Our short-term goals might be things like the fight against human trafficking and abortion, but we must never lose sight of our long-term goal: the establishment of a Catholic confessional State.